The Importance of Interfaith Engagement

In an age of globalization and massive migration, religious radicalism across the world has been increasing over the last half-century.   Religious persecution is a world-wide human rights crisis, and even religions once claimed as most peaceful have resorted to authoritarianism and violence to commit violence against others.  In our own nation, for instance, so-called “Christian nationalism” is a radicalizing factor that has perpetuated centuries of western, religious-motivated violence in recent years. 

The need for building interfaith bridges–intentionally and thoughtfully–is needed now more than ever. Peacemaking can no longer happen on the sidelines.

My own interfaith work, spanning over a decade, is bound up with my religious upbringing and experience.  My parents moved from the Catholic Church to a Protestant one when I was born in New York. Later, upon moving to Florida, we attended a Southern Baptist church and then made our way to a Calvary Chapel led by a Cuban pastor.  From there, in high school and the wake of Hurricane Andrew, we moved to Coral Springs, where I attended a multicultural, charismatic Presbyterian church in Pompano Beach.  It was there that I was baptized, got married, and responded to a call in full-time ministry.

My multicultural, multiethnic, multi-Christian upbringing gave me a hunger to learn about the faiths of others.  In college at Palm Beach Atlantic University, the college hosted Jewish-Christian dialogues with synagogues in Palm Beach.  This exposure showed me the importance of interfaith immersion as a way to learn about one’s own faith and to understand the faith of others.  I learned the importance of “faith seeking understanding” by befriending people of other faiths and listening to their faith stories just as much as I wanted to share my own faith story. I took a class by one of the rabbis on the land and history of Israel, a truly eye-opening experience.

In my first year of seminary in Atlanta, Georgia, terrorists crashed planes in the Twin Towers, Pentagon, and in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001.  The religious landscape in America changed abruptly, and we saw an escalation of violence primarily focused on Muslim populations in the nation, especially in the South.  Antisemitism also increased in the wake of this event.

As a result, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, to which I subscribed, formed an Interfaith Task Force with leaders from the Smoke Rise Baptist Church (Stone Mountain, GA), several downtown synagogues, and the Islamic Speakers’ Bureau.  I joined the committee around 2011, and volunteered to be the “congregational liaison” for the committee, traveling across the state to meet with pastors and supporting (or encouraging) interfaith work in their local communities. One of our initiatives of the committee was to form and dedicate an interfaith garden at Mercer University.

When I moved to Vero Beach in 2016, I sought out the local Rabbi, Michael Birnholz, at Temple Beth Shalom, only two blocks from my house.  He invited me to become active in the Indian River Interfaith Community, which meets monthly at Cleveland Clinic through the generous support of the Chaplaincy’s office.

The Indian River Interfaith Community is a group of local faith leaders and friends who communicate our unity in the midst of diversity.  It is a group that, in good faith, shares what we have in common but also does not shy away from our distinctives and differences.

Aside from meeting monthly, we host several programs for the public, including online interfaith dialogues, an annual Thanksgiving service hosted by the Community Church, prayer vigils in times of crisis and tragedy, the Four Chaplains service in Sebastian, and service projects, among many other events.

As a way to encourage interfaith understanding, I encourage four keys to interfaith work.  First, learn! Read books and search out healthy avenues of learning about people of other cultures, histories, and religions.   

Second, befriend.  Relationships are the key to “faith seeking understanding,” and I encourage you to get out of your comfort zone and be intentional about befriending people who are different from you. 

Third, listen!  Listen to the stories of others and understand.  Listen to the emotions behind the words, and put yourselves in the shoes of another.  

Last, engage! Participate in community. Participate in the community of your own faith, then go out and participate in the community of others. Just last month, for instance, I had the privilege of preaching at Temple Beth Shalom. Later this month, Rabbi Michael will share at First Baptist Church. Engaging means, ultimately, learning how to tell your own story.  Stay informed and figure out how you can be part of the solution of eliminating or decreasing religious violence, persecution, and marginalization.  How can you advocate for peace, fight against religious abuse, or support global organizations committed to alleviating human rights abuses around the world? 

We will not be Silent about Sexual Abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention

We will not be silent about the culture of Sexual Abuse among Southern Baptists

In my sermon last Sunday (May 22), I used the “interpretative lens” of trauma to unpack Jesus’ words of encouragement and love in John 14:15-24.  I reflected on the aftermath of recent shootings over the past week: one in a church in Laguna, California, and a second mass shooting in Buffalo, New York.  I used my own experience with trauma as a result of gun violence to help us live more deeply in Christ’s love, God’s Word, and the brokenness of our world. 

Trauma, I said, can be debilitating, paralyzing, and complex–but it can also provide a profound witness to the persistence of God’s unyielding love, the courage of the saints, and the witness of Christ’s Church.

This weekend we are greeted with a new wave of trauma as the Southern Baptist Convention released its report on their investigation into sexual abuse across the Southern Baptist Convention. 

The report shows numerous cover-ups, violations of human dignity, and pervasive abuse that shielded clergy and leadership from over 700 cases of abuse.  This abuse happened in all areas of the Convention, from the local church to the highest ranks of the SBC.

I agree with Russell Moore when he said in a recent interview with NPR that this is not only a systemic issue, but a cultural issue.  Sexual abuse and predation have been issues I’ve been speaking and writing about for years, primarily when it comes to how women are treated, views of women in roles of leadership, how Baptists treat issues related to gender and power in Scripture, and women in leadership within the local church.  We who have been engaged in Southern Baptist politics over the last two decades knew that a reckoning was coming. As Moore put it in his article on the SBC report:

“Who cannot now see the rot in a culture that mobilizes to exile churches that call a woman on staff a ‘pastor’ or that invite a woman to speak from the pulpit on Mother’s Day, but dismisses rape and molestation as ‘distractions’ and efforts to address them as violations of cherished church autonomy? In sectors of today’s SBC, women wearing leggings is a social media crisis; dealing with rape in the church is a distraction.” 

I join other Baptists in calling for reform; but, before you can reform a community’s culture, you must reform its theology.  Theology is the foundation that embodies (and embeds) the values that shape culture, worldview, and–eventually–the bureaucracies that enshroud those cultures in a larger community.

We must reform theological fault lines.  For years, I have proposed that when certain theologians set up humans in a hierarchy, claiming that, since men are made first and women made second in creation, you ultimately get a worldview that turns those-who-are-created-second into second-class citizens. For me, this was becoming a larger issue in Baptist life when conversations in Convention-sponsored seminaries focused on excluding women from teaching Bible and theology classes to seminarians. It’s one thing to argue about women serving as pastors, but when a class is unable to have women teach, what emerges are theological fractures that cannot hold over time.

If women cannot have a voice and God-given authority to shape life with Christ and life in the church, then why are we surprised that it robs them a voice to speak out against their accusers and oppressors within the church? Abuse and exploitation is not a secular, humanist plot– abuse is originating with church leaders who have abused women and have codified theologies that result in abuse for decades.

Nor is abuse isolated: part of my wife’s testimony includes her leaving the Southern Baptist church of her childhood after learning that her pastor was having an affair with one of his parishioners. That even, which occurred when my wife was 12 years of age, shaped how she viewed Southern Baptists and Southern Baptist Churches for decades. It was a gross violation of trust, and it took some convincing for my wife to get back into a Baptist church when I entered my first full-time ministry position.

Reform must include repentance and reparation.  This report must lead us all to repent.  We have all been caught up in a culture of silencing victims for the sake of increasing budgets and bodies-in-pews.  We may not be directly involved or know anyone affected by abuse and scandal, but this is our family and we have a part in that family whether we like it or not. 

But repentance is only the beginning.  As I have learned in my work with gun-violence victims, there must be reconciliation that brings about reparation.  To say, “I pray for you” is not adequate if prayer fails to inspire action.   

There must be a re-evaluation of theological foundations that have perpetuated toxic masculinity and exploitation in the Southern Baptist Convention and Southern Baptist churches.  We must reclaim what Scripture says in a way that honors both male and female as having been made in God’s image and lives out a Christ-centered vision in which “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female” in the life of the church.

We have used Scripture for our means, and we need to reflect what the Bible really says about humans and human dignity in all our publications and promotions in the Convention.  There must be a total rewriting of our sermons, narratives (especially those that seek explicitly to silence victims of abuse), and curriculum to reflect the kind of justice and humility that God expects from His children.

We broke the world, and now we must work to repair it. 

We broke the world’s trust, and we need to work diligently to renovate the integrity of the Gospel.

And we must work to restore the heart of Baptist ministry in local and global contexts that shield victims from abuse, not abusers from their victims.